Dáil debates

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Brexit Readiness for the End of the Transition Period: Statements

 

7:00 pm

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I see we have a packed House this evening.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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They will pile in when they hear the Minister.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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As we find ourselves just two weeks away from a comprehensive and permanent change in the relationship between the EU and the UK, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this last sitting of the Dáil before Christmas. I promised to keep Members updated on Brexit developments and I think I have kept my word. This is the 18th session of statements on Brexit that I have taken in the Dáil or the Seanad since mid-2017. In that period, the Government has also answered more than 3,000 Brexit-related parliamentary questions and I have chaired over 20 meetings of the Brexit stakeholder forum, which many of the Members of this House have also attended.

My colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will give the House a detailed update on where matters currently stand on future relationship negotiations, but we believe that, with political will, there is now a path to a deal and welcome that the negotiating teams continue to make every effort to that end. Fishing now remains the most difficult issue to resolve. I hope the existing gaps can be closed through realism and a sense of fairness on both sides.

Before turning to consider the state of readiness, I will briefly touch on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and the Ireland and Northern Ireland protocol. I pay tribute to the work of Maroš Šefcovic, Vice-President of the European Commission for Interinstitutional Relations, and Michael Gove, MP, and their teams. The questions that arose in the context of implementing the protocol were complex and politically sensitive, with significant implications for Ireland, North and South. Following intensive engagement, the EU and UK have reached agreement on all issues relating to the protocol.

Earlier today, the joint committee on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement met to agree a number of decisions about the operation of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. The decisions taken address important issues, including the definition of goods deemed not to be at risk of entering the Single Market, the practical arrangements regarding the EU's presence in Northern Ireland when UK authorities implement checks and controls under the protocol and the exemption of some agricultural and fish subsidies from state aid rules. This clear and agreed approach has delivered stable solutions on a range of issues, including arrangements to protect the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland, to give supermarkets time to adjust and ensure supply chain resilience and to minimise the level of checks needed where these are necessary. These assurances are of enormous importance to Northern Ireland traders, whether they are operating North-South or east-west.

It is also important to reiterate that, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, hopefully in the coming days, the protocol means that the new customs and regulatory controls coming into force for east-west trade will not apply to trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This is a significant achievement, reflecting a key priority set by the Irish Government at the outset of the Brexit negotiations. It is a positive outcome for Ireland, North and South.

It is now more than four years since the UK voted to leave the EU and the Government began in earnest to prepare for the changes coming our way. Over this time, our approach has been agile and adaptive, depending on where the negotiations were heading. We have reviewed and refined our work as the changing circumstances required. In May this year, as it became clear that the transition period would not be extended, the Government intensified its readiness work to prepare for a very limited deal or, indeed, no deal at all. We set all of the relevant issues out in September's Brexit readiness action plan. This is a valuable source of information and support for citizens and businesses. With a weather eye to what is ahead, budget 2021 allocates unprecedented resources to confronting the twin challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit. Some €340 million is allocated in the budget for Brexit-related supports. The Government will also establish a €3.4 billion recovery fund to stimulate increased domestic demand and employment in response to Covid-19 and Brexit.

Brexit brings many changes, but the most immediate and challenging arise from the UK leaving the Single Market and customs union. In simple terms, this means that the seamless trade we enjoy with the UK today will end in two weeks' time. All businesses, big and small, will be affected and if they do not prepare now, their trade will be disrupted, deliveries will be delayed and customers will be lost.

My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will give more detail on our stakeholder engagement and on the significant work that has gone into ensuring our ports and airports are as ready as they possibly can be. We have engaged intensively with stakeholders, provided supports and will continue to work with all businesses and stakeholders in the remaining weeks and post transition. However, I am concerned that many businesses, particularly in the SME sector, are not fully prepared. I cannot stress enough that there is no outcome of the talks that will stop the introduction of new customs and regulatory regimes.

The issue is not under negotiation as the UK has decided its best interests lie outside the Single Market and customs union.

If the EU and UK fail to reach a deal, a broader set of challenges arises. These challenges include tariffs and quotas and the loss of access for Irish fishing boats to UK waters. Furthermore, the absence of a data adequacy decision would impact every public authority and business that exchanges data with the UK.

Plans to manage issues that arise in the immediate day-one, week-one period and beyond are being finalised. Revenue, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the HSE will have 24-hour operations in Dublin Port. A range of call centres and advice lines will be available to traders and citizens. Our embassies abroad will be monitoring developments across the EU and UK. The senior officials group on Brexit readiness will meet throughout the period and will provide central oversight and co-ordination of these operations.

The Government has done its homework and is as prepared as we can be. However, even with all the work undertaken by Government, business and citizens will face major disruption. That is being honest. It is simply not possible to mitigate against every Brexit risk. There is no silver bullet that solves all problems. A number of the changes will be outside of our control. We need to recognise this reality and do what we can to adapt and react when these changes occur. Some changes will be obvious to consumers, for example, the increased cost of meeting the new requirements may lead to certain companies deciding to no longer service the Irish market. While our shelves will not be empty, of course, it is possible some of our favourite brands may no longer be available.

Additionally, there remains a lack or clarity in respect of elements of the UK's preparations, which impacts on our ability to finalise our own planning. Even before Brexit, we were seeing delays in Dover and Calais. We anticipate there will be delays and potential disruption in Irish ports as operators adjust to the new systems of checks.

We have no intention of undertaking unnecessary checks or delaying goods for no reason. Our approach at our ports has the twin aim of ensuring trade can flow to the greatest extent possible while maintaining food safety standards, public health and our obligations to the Single Market.

We all understand the importance of the Single Market to Ireland's economy. It is the mechanism by which our goods move freely without customs formalities and regulatory checks and why we have seamless access to a market of 450 million people. In return for this access, we have an obligation to protect the integrity of the Single Market we belong to. We will do everything possible to minimise delays but everyone has to play his or her part. I look forward to hearing the views of Members and responding at the end of the statements.

7:10 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his ongoing hugely positive role in this process, his leadership in the Department of Foreign Affairs and his excellence as a colleague. I appreciate that and that extends across this House on Brexit. There has always been a shared understanding across the Oireachtas of what the UK's decision to leave really means. From the broad political consequences to the specifics of technical policy areas, the unity of purpose in both Houses has been a hallmark of Ireland's approach to Brexit.

Make no mistake, our European colleagues have seen that the Irish have their act together on Brexit and, in return, have shown us tremendous solidarity. While the Minister was speaking, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, issued a statement following her conversation with Boris Johnson and it is no different from what the Minister and I were discussing only an hour ago, that substantial progress has been made but big differences remain, particularly on fisheries. The Commission President said that bridging them will be very challenging and that the negotiations will continue tomorrow, which we welcome. It is important and in everybody's interest that a deal be achieved and work continue strongly.

This unity in the Oireachtas to which I referred was evident last week as the Brexit omnibus Act passed through the Houses, with the exception of one provision, which did not directly relate to the issue of Brexit. It was clear all sides supported the legislation. President Higgins signed the Bill into law on 10 December and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, commenced Part 1 yesterday. This paves the way for other sections to be commenced in the coming days.

Dáil Éireann has followed every step of the negotiating process on the future relationship since the talks began nine months ago. Deadlines have come and gone but there has never been any doubt that our negotiating team - and Michel Barnier is our negotiator - would strive with every fibre of their being for a positive outcome. Michel Barnier is our good friend. He has an incredible insight into Ireland going back a long time in his role as minister for agriculture in France and as a European Commissioner, with his special role on this island. Thousands of hours of hard, patient work continue to be done by our negotiators. The talks have never been about one side winning or losing or about gaining the upper hand, but about creating a new and stable framework for EU-UK co-operation to continue, even as the nature of our relationship changes.

On 16 December, President von der Leyen, addressing the European Parliament, noted that while we have found a way forward on most issues, gaps remain on the level playing field and fisheries. We see her up-to-date statement this evening. They are vital issues, crucial to our country and without which agreement cannot be reached. This House knows the Government's position is that there must be a workable outcome for fishers that does as much as possible to protect our coastal communities.

We do not yet know whether there will be a deal. I can assure the House there is no choreography. This is reality. It is hard and the gaps are difficult to bridge. Progress has been made on issues, though, and talks continue. There could be a narrow path to agreement, as the President of the Commission said. Political will on both sides is necessary and the coming days are decisive. We have been saying that for a long time but it is clearly the case with Christmas and 31 December approaching.

As the Minister said, even with a deal, the consequences for our country will be significant. Pretty much every change we are preparing for and for which we have asked businesses to prepare - which most have - will transpire deal or no deal.

Joint analysis by the Department of Finance and the ESRI indicates that over the medium term, Ireland's level of GDP is expected to be between 1.9% and 3.3% lower, compared to a situation where the UK remained in the EU. That is a frightening statistic. Underneath that, there are sectors and regions of this country, with agrifood, fisheries, manufacturing and retail the most exposed.

Supporting businesses to prepare for this change has been a priority of our Brexit preparations. A sustained and intensive communications and stakeholder outreach programme remains central to this work. Countrywide, people will have come across our Brexit ads on the radio - bhí an-áthas orm iad a fheiceáil i nGaeilge freisin - on television, in newspapers and in social media feeds. Since September alone, between myself, the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, we have discussed Brexit at more than 100 events, to say nothing of the countless engagements and seminars delivered by our officials, who I thank for their incredible work, and by the teams of officials across Departments who will be watching any deal that comes out over the days before and after Christmas, at much expense to their families, it must be said and acknowledged, but to the great benefit of our county. This work will continue. If there is a deal in place, we will continue to engage with business to explain the deal and get businesses ready that are not ready. In a no-deal situation, even more work will be required.

Our Revenue Commissioners have written to more than 90,000 businesses that have traded with the UK since 2019 and followed up with direct phone contact with 14,000 businesses. The Tánaiste wrote to all 225,000 companies registered in Ireland with advice on preparing for the end of the transition period. All Departments and agencies have advisory resources available. In the absence of large gatherings, we have made great use of virtual platforms and webinars to connect with our stakeholders.

The Brexit omnibus Act provides for postponed accounting of VAT. We introduced the ready for customs grant to help companies prepare for new customs requirements. Up to €9,000 is available per eligible employee placed in a customs role. To date, more than €5.4 million in funding has been provided. In addition, more than 2,000 businesses have registered for the Clear Customs Online training programme, 1,070 approvals have been made under the local enterprise offices' technical assistance for micro exporters grant and InterTradeIreland has approved 2,495 Brexit planning vouchers.

The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has highlighted the detailed work that has taken place across all key sectors to get ready for 1 January. I would like to focus on our deal and on no-deal preparations at ports and airports. These are the vital gateways to our trade with the EU and the UK and we have invested significantly to make sure they are ready for the demands that will come with the end of the transition period.

The State has taken steps to ensure we can manage the introduction of the new checks and controls and keep trade flowing. We have significantly expanded the State's facilities at Dublin Airport, Dublin Port and Rosslare. In Dublin Port alone, we have completed 140,000 sq. m of building works involving 500,000 person hours. These facilities include new inspection bays, import and export facilities and more than 300 parking spaces for heavy goods vehicles, HGVs. I have visited these facilities and tip my hat to our officials, who are working hard to get everything ready. We have also greatly enhanced the capacity of customs and other ICT systems to manage the new processes, including the expected increase in annual import and export declarations from approximately 1.6 million per annum to in excess of 20 million per annum next year. That is an extraordinary statistic. Provision has been made to deploy some 1,500 staff to support and carry out the increased customs, sanitary and phytosanitary, and food safety checks and controls. A comprehensive programme of testing is under way and involves key agencies and port users. Testing at Dublin Port and Rosslare Europort last year involved 38 HGVs across both locations. We also recently published traffic management plans for Dublin Port and Dublin more widely. These plans are publicly available and it is worth repeating that there is a wealth of information on www.gov.ie/brexit.

While we have secured flexibilities at EU level for goods moving across the UK land bridge, I have highlighted many times how the route will become more complicated. The increase in direct ferry services is welcome and we would welcome even more. It is clear that a number of traders and operators are beginning to look at this option. Indeed, some substantial traders have abandoned the land bridge. I would urge anyone for whom a direct ferry is an option to trial it as soon as possible because we are coming to the end of the year.

We are all aware that the coming changes present challenges, but it is important to remember that we do not face them alone. The European Commission has published details of the EU-level contingency measures that will come on stream if no agreement is reached. While they are significantly less than the status quo, they will keep the planes flying and road freight flowing in the first half of next year. As a consequence of Brexit, the Commission was required to introduce these contingency measures. This was not an imaginary problem, but a real one that had to be solved. I look forward to seeing more detail on the allocation under the EU's €5 billion Brexit adjustment reserve, which is an important fund.

Deputies have consistently engaged on these important matters and I look forward to hearing their views. I thank them most sincerely for continuing the tradition that obtained in the previous Dáil of supporting the Government on Brexit, engaging with us, challenging or providing ideas when necessary, distributing information and encouraging our businesses and consumers to get ready.

7:20 pm

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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We are rapidly approaching the midnight hour that will mark the introduction of Brexit. The closer we get to that moment, the more I am reminded of the work of the historian Professor Christopher Clark, who described the great powers of Europe in the fateful summer of 1914 as sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff as the Continent obliviously inched towards the ensuing catastrophe. In the present, we are witnessing the re-emergence of a toxic form of English nationalism, the emotional expression of which appears to have supplanted any form of sound political judgment. The Financial Timesrecently expressed a concern that the Tories have no post-Brexit strategy. They have lived with the prospect of Brexit for years with little or no thought of the consequences. This comes as no surprise to us in Ireland.

If Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been successful in anything, it is the shading of the term "national sovereignty" with a pejorative hue. Having seeded the Tory Party amid a cacophony of jingoism in what would have been the traditional Labour heartland by appealing to the worst excesses of English nationalism, the Tories and Mr. Johnson are not inclined to surrender this electoral support. In Trump-like fashion, they will instead feed the worst, most xenophobic and most triumphalistic demands and expectations of that base.

The decision by Prime Minister Johnson that four naval vessels would be detailed to defend British fishing interests is an outrageous act of aggression, particularly in the midst of the ongoing negotiations. It is a throwback to 19th century British gunboat diplomacy, but that day is long gone. Thanks to our allies in Europe and America, Tory Britain is no longer able to impose that state of affairs on Ireland. Even in the event of a failure to secure a deal on fishing now, we can be optimistic that the soon-to-be-established government of an independent Scotland would be much more amenable even before its re-entry to the EU. Another reason to be wary is that this act of maritime aggression is a sleight of hand by Prime Minister Johnson that is designed to distract English nationalists from potential concessions that might have to be made in the ongoing negotiations.

As the Financial Timeshas expressed, there is a fear that the post-Brexit environment has the potential to turn very ugly very quickly. The level of anti-European and, in particular, anti-French sentiment being expressed throughout public discourse on Brexit in England must be a matter of grave concern to all Europeans. There exists a real fear that this could create flashpoints and even physical confrontations. As much as, if not more than, most countries, Ireland is well aware of the cost that accrues from the failure of politics. The European project is primarily about peaceful co-operation. It cannot and must not be allowed to be undermined by the domestic political ambitions of a discredited leader who, unfettered, would drive his country into penury, undermine the international rule of law and sacrifice our peace process on the altar of his own desire for power.

Conflicting reports on the negotiations continue to oscillate between deal and no-deal scenarios. This evening, Mr. Michael Gove stated that there was a less than 50:50 chance of a deal. As a nation, we have placed our trust in the capacity of the EU negotiators to represent Ireland's interests in the continuing talks. Along with fellow member states and the President-elect of the United States, these negotiators have been steadfast in their support for the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish protocol, forcing the British to back down and remove the offending elements from the UK Internal Market Bill.

While we have little, if any, control over the actions of the British Government and the impact of its apparent laissez-faireapproach to preparations for Brexit, I regret to report that the same approach appears to have seeped through to this side of the Irish Sea, as stated at an Oireachtas committee meeting yesterday. It is the sole responsibility of the Irish Government to ensure this country is as prepared as possible for the challenges that Brexit will bring, deal or no deal. Yesterday, the Oireachtas received a warning from the road haulage industry that the anticipated disruption and obstruction that would arise as a consequence of new customs and import controls at points of entry to Ireland in the aftermath of Brexit would have catastrophic consequences and the potential to bring the industry to a standstill. Reports suggest that we are facing into a period of unprecedented disruption in the movement of goods. The Government should prepare a contingency plan for State-supported shipping routes in order to provide routes that may not be commercially viable or provided by private shipping companies.

With half of all goods leaving Dublin Port heading to Holyhead, reports of the lack of preparedness in Wales are concerning. In the last week, the House of Commons Welsh affairs select committee has expressed huge concerns over the absolute lack of preparedness at Welsh ports. With barely more than two weeks to Brexit, decisions are still awaited over the placement of inland border control facilities away from Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke.

The fact that the Government proposal to deal with delays and traffic jams at Irish ports caused by the increase in checks at British ports includes stacking up to 750 lorries at motorway service stops, roads and emergency lorry parks is concerning. With estimated delays of at least up to two days at Dover, our ability to manage the rolling impact here in Ireland is absolutely critical.

While in Britain the reviews that have been carried out on traffic and customs management systems have revealed huge gaps in the level of preparedness, in Ireland we have not yet carried out a Government sponsored independent review of the full working effectiveness of our preparedness levels. We cannot afford to adopt an approach that will see us muddling through under the direction of the free market. That simply will not happen. It is time for leadership. The necessary adjustments that have taken place today have been on the back of the collegiate approach between shipping companies and the transport industry in the absence of Government assistance. By introducing extra ferries, along with other measures, they are attempting to ensure that come January, along with other issues, we will not have the food shortages the Government warns us about but is happy to abdicate its responsibility to the free market. Not only are we, as a country, not prepared, we are to suffer the spirit of Trevelyan in another moment of historical national crisis.

The opportunity still exists, however, for the Government to get around the table in the days ahead and work with all the stakeholders, such as the hauliers, ferry companies and others to examine in detail some of the proposals they have and what additional measures need to be introduced to ensure our ports are prepared for Brexit.

7:30 pm

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I want to address some elements of Brexit but I want to first raise with the Minister an issue that was brought to my attention early this morning. It relates to an apparent rush in deportations under the Dublin III Regulation. This is being done despite an assurance given by the Taoiseach that save for in the instance of national security, there will not be deportations during the course of this pandemic.

I refer the Minister to the words of Dr. Lucy Michael, an expert in integration, diversity and equality. She asks:

Why are the Irish Government speeding up deportations under Dublin III arrangements now? Is this part of their Brexit readiness plan? Deporting to Britain won't be possible after December 30th but here is the thing, the deportees will lose all of their EU rights and protections. If these deportees are transferred to Britain and it transpires that this was done in error, the power under article 29(3) of the Dublin III regulations may no longer be enforceable after December 31st, 2020.

This goes directly contrary to assurances given in this House by the Taoiseach. I ask that the Minister please put this on the record and, if he can, come back to me. Is this being done as part of Brexit? I genuinely cannot see what else is pushing this. I am a member of a group called Fingal Communities Against Racism. We have been communicating with each other all day and have all concluded that this is being done as some sort of Brexit preparedness. That is extremely worrying.

If any of these deportations go ahead and there is an error, the person who was subsequently deported to Britain may find himself or herself in the situation where he or she does not have the protections of European human rights infrastructure, but also in a scenario whereby the Dublin III articles cannot be used to transfer that person back. I am not suggesting that mistakes are made all of the time but the Minister and I both know mistakes happen. I ask the Minister to please intervene. I have already raised this directly with the Tánaiste. I raised it with the Minister of State in the Department of Justice and I am raising it now with the Minister. It seems like there is a rush on at the moment. Is it related to Brexit? No matter what is pushing it, that should not be happening because it goes directly contrary to an assurance given by the Taoiseach here on 9 December. I ask the Minister, if he can, to respond to me and if not, can he please come back to me and, perhaps, give us those assurances?

I want to deal with issues around Brexit as well. As I said, I took the opportunity to raise that issue because it came up this morning. I want to thank the European negotiating team and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, for his work in trying to get this deal over the line. The conduct of some of our near neighbours, from their disinterest in and disdain for the people of the North of Ireland and threats to use food shortages as a bargaining chip to starve the Irish people and the Government into dropping the backstop, to the passing of the Internal Markets Bill and their most recent threats to deploy gunboats to the Irish Sea, are just a small taste of the difficulties Mr. Michel Barnier and his team have had to face over the past number of months.

In the face of such arrogance, ignorance, aggression and deception, Mr. Barnier has risen above this and gotten on with the task of getting the best possible deal, not just for us, but also for the European Union. I hope this can still be achieved and, in particular, that the people of the North of Ireland are protected to the fullest extent possible. I also want to see the fullest extent of protections for small to medium-sized businesses on our island and that a genuinely workable relationship can emerge in the shape of the trade deal that is agreed. That said, there is a distinct possibility that we could be facing a no-deal Brexit. This would be a terrible failure and, as such, the blame for this will be laid squarely at the door of the British Government.

We have two weeks to go before the end of the transition and there are still questions around preparedness. In this regard, I must echo Chartered Accountants Ireland when it says that regardless of what happens, come 1 January, Brexit will lead to additional barriers to trade and cross-border mobility of services and people.

As the European Commission said, there will be broad and far-reaching consequences for public administrations, businesses and citizens as of 1 January 2021, regardless of the outcome of negotiations. These changes are unavoidable and stakeholders must make sure they are ready for them. It is vital that we use the remaining days, through every medium and mechanism available, to inform businesses what Friday, 1 January 2021 will actually mean for them.

There are hundreds of sectoral guidance notices from the European Commission and our own Government. These need to be read and understood, not just by businesses but also by politicians. It is vital those who are trading in goods become familiar with areas such as importer-exporter obligations, rules of origin, VAT and excise duty, certificates, authorisations, markings and labelling. Those trading services should be au fait with any changes regarding financial services, aviation, road transport operators, professional qualifications and personal data.

As one businessperson said to me recently, people are Brexit-fatigued. Now is the wrong time to give into Brexit fatigue, however. Now is the wrong time to take our eye off the ball. I wish the best to Mr. Barnier and his negotiating team and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and the people in their Department. I thank the Minister for the work he and Michel Barnier have done to date. We know the scale of the job that confronts the Minister. As has been the hallmark of this debate from day one, there is cross-party co-operation and unity in this regard.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I will begin by saying that Brexit was never our project and never our doing in this country. It has, however, dominated our discourse for four years now. It is the Christmas season and that is my motivation in warmly and sincerely congratulating the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and his team on the way the Brexit negotiations have been handled and for keeping all of us and all the stakeholders well informed over the last number of years. I also compliment Michel Barnier, a man I first met many years ago when we were both environment ministers. He has an in-depth knowledge of Ireland and the thorny issues with which he has been grappling.

One of the things we have learned from the last four years, and it has been an almost entirely negative period, is the value of solidarity within the European Union. Many people who advocated for Brexit in the United Kingdom did not believe the solidarity would be maintained between the 27 EU member states. I heard it from the beginning from the most senior people in government and from senior business people that at the end of the day it would not be Michel Barnier who would be calling the shots but that BMW, Audi and the big companies would be on the phone to Angela Merkel, who would give instructions to Michel Barnier. They have been quite shocked that the German people and all European peoples value the movement towards integration and solidarity that the European Union project has crystallised. If there is anything positive that we can say has emerged from Brexit, this is one such thing.

We are reasonably well-prepared. The Brexit omnibus Acts that have been enacted, involving 12 or more Departments, with each one minutely identifying measures and trying, as far as possible, to mitigate the harm of Brexit by making preparations. From the outset, the Northern Ireland protocol has been placed as an issue to be achieved before we could move on to anything else. This was an approach uniformly supported by everybody in this House, whatever others have said in recent days. It has always been the clear understanding of all of us that this had to be achieved. Many thought it would be impossible and the final outcome, the work of Maroš Šefcovic and Michael Gove in finalising matters this week, is to be applauded and I am delighted that has been put to bed.

After all my positive words on the Brexit omnibus Acts, the maintenance of the common travel area and the rights of Irish citizens and Northern Ireland citizens to continue to access EU programmes, there is one area in which I have been critical of the Government for the last two years. I have been banging a drum on connectivity because I said from the start that this would be the first test. Other things will unfold over time and we will learn that there are things we have not planned for because we could not have foreseen them. Connectivity is one matter we could have foreseen and I have been fearful for the last two years of disruptions to the land bridge that we are so dependent on, with 150,000 trucks using it. I have been on to the Department of Transport, I have raised this multiple times in this House and I have spoken to the Irish Maritime Development Office. It produced a report, under pressure, and I have to say that I categorise that report as complacent because it was basically a watch-and-wait strategy.

I listened earlier to the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, welcome the direct connectivity that has been announced with DFDS in my constituency. There will be six weekly sailings, which is important, and I have worked with DFDS for six months to get that. It was not a proactive reach-out, however. We have been so thorough on every other issue but there has been no analysis to examine the total volume of trade that we can better serve with direct connectivity as opposed to the land bridge, and to see if we can talk to companies to ensure that is provided. There is significant additional connectivity now, such as the six sailings by DFDS per week from 2 January that I mentioned. Stena Line has added two more sailings, there are other sailings to be added and Irish Ferries is maintaining its direct services. Even the full capacity that is planned for next year, significantly increased and all as it is, will not in any way compensate for a full disruption. The information I am hearing from England about the chaos that could ensue at ports is quite frightening. There is still a prospect of mitigating that damage of inaccessibility and disconnectivity that is there.

The plans for Dublin Port, including stacking lorries up the M50 and using it as a parking system, and using the Dublin Port Tunnel almost as a roundabout in and out, are worrying. I do not want to end on a discordant note but that is the one real concern I have had for more than two years and the one eventuality we have not adequately prepared for. Other than that, the solidarity and common purpose we have exuded in this House on this issue are an example of how we can achieve things by working together. I have been extraordinarily proud of the efforts of all of our public servants across all Departments, particularly in the Department of Foreign Affairs. Their skills and expertise have served this country magnificently in recent years.

7:40 pm

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister for Foreign Affairs said in his introductory remarks that Britain will be outside the European Union, the Single Market and the customs union from 1 January next, which is only two weeks away. How we trade with Britain will be dramatically different, therefore. Even if a free trade agreement is concluded between the European Union and Britain, there will be significant and enduring change. It is vital, as previous speakers have all said, that all businesses, regardless of their size and be they small, medium or large, need to focus on Brexit readiness, as things will simply not be the same.

The Minister gave a sombre message on the Government's concerns about the lack of preparedness, particularly with small and medium enterprises. Being prepared is critical and essential. We know that without preparation, there is the real risk of delays and a loss of income, which would be damaging for any business or enterprise. We cannot emphasise enough how important it is for businesses and enterprises to be ready. There is and has been for a considerable length of time, substantial Government help available, especially the Brexit readiness checker, which shows exactly what businesses need to do.

The budget for 2021, which was passed in this House some weeks ago, allocated substantial resources to confront the twin challenges we face at this particular time, that is, the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit. The figure the Minister quoted was €340 million to be spent on Brexit-related measures and that is welcome. The Government has also provided a recovery fund to assist businesses in the aftermath of Covid-19 and Brexit. It is extremely important that we remain committed to protecting and strengthening the British-Irish trading relationship following Brexit. Britain has always been and will continue to be an important market for Ireland. What is often left out of the narrative and commentary is the extremely important market we are for Britain as well. That cannot be emphasised enough by the Government.

I have had the privilege of representing two Border constituencies over a considerable period of time. I was a public representative for Cavan-Monaghan prior to the Good Friday Agreement and I am glad to be one since the Good Friday Agreement as well. I am conscious of the benefits that all of this island derived from the Good Friday Agreement, particularly in my region and in the Border region in general. We have thankfully seen the development of the all-Ireland economy. We have seen businesses develop, grow and be established on an all-Ireland basis. We have seen the interdependence of the economies, North and South, and that has been tremendously important in providing job opportunities, particularly for the areas that suffered so much due to the Troubles over that prolonged period of time.

When the Brexit referendum took place in 2016, Deputy Howlin and the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, referred to the fact that our parliamentary system responded with one voice and message to our fellow member states in the European Union. It was good parliamentary work, regardless of who was in government. We were in opposition for most of that time and we gave strong support to the Government in its efforts to win support over from other member states. I was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence in the last Dáil and I had the opportunity to invite our counterpart committees from other member states of the European Union to come here, visit the Border region and see at first hand that we did not have a border but that we moved seamlessly North and South and South and North.

Those parliamentary groups who came here met local entrepreneurs and community and civic leaders and got a clear message that we did not want a border reimposed on our island. They got the clear message that, as communities, we appreciate the significant progress that has been made and that we were not going back to the era that we suffered so much through during that long period from the late 1960s up until 1998. Deputy Howlin, the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, referred to the work of Mr. Michel Barnier. In his knowledge and interest in our country, Mr. Barnier is to be credited in every discussion we have on Brexit. I know that from working with Mr. Barnier in the Council of Ministers in the past.

The Minister, Deputy Coveney, gave a clear but sombre message about what lies ahead of us. The Minister referred, in particular, to his concerns at the preparation of small and medium-sized enterprises. Small and medium-sized enterprises are more important to the less developed parts of our economy than to the more developed areas economically. Professor Edgar Morgenroth, either for the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, or for Dublin City University, did an exceptional piece of work on the projected regional impact of Brexit. It showed clearly the adverse impact that Brexit would have on my region and on the Border region in general. Because of our dependence on agrifood, construction products and the engineering sector, there was a marked difference between the impact that Brexit would have on Cavan-Monaghan and the Border in comparison with south Dublin. Our economy is more dependent on the small and medium-sized enterprises than the east coast in general. It shows clearly the need for assistance to support small and medium-sized enterprises.

Despite many challenges that our businesses and enterprises faced over the years, many of them, thankfully, have grown from one- and two-person businesses to be small medium-sized enterprises, and some of them from my own counties of Cavan and Monaghan have grown from one- and two-person operations to become international corporations today. They deserve great credit.

Many of the companies that are providing such valuable employment in areas such as Cavan and Monaghan are totally dependent on the road network, because we do not have a rail network, to export their finished product to the ports and airports, or to bring in raw materials for their enterprises. We are talking about Brexit preparedness and readiness. One other narrative that we need to get on to next is to support enterprises post-Brexit. I would argue that the infrastructural needs of that region or regions that will be most adversely impacted have to be prioritised for investment. We are all aware that if there is poor infrastructure, businesses face additional costs, and if we are to try to assist businesses to remain competitive following Brexit we have to ensure the infrastructure is brought up to a very good standard to assist those enterprises. I am talking about the road network. I am talking about broadband. I am also talking about investment in human capital. There is great scope and potential there for more investment in education and training on a cross-Border, all-island basis. That was provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. It was provided for that we would go towards all-island structures in the areas of education, health, trade and enterprise. Brexit should give an impetus that we drive forward that agenda and we support those businesses at the coalface of Brexit.

I instanced in this House on many occasions some of the enterprises in my own immediate area. They are sited both sides of the Border. There may be part manufacturing or part assembly in Fermanagh and other part assembly or part manufacturing in Cavan. Those activities of manufacturing and assembly plants are all interdependent and we know the difficulties that will arise should there be customs procedures or additional customs costs imposed on those enterprises. We have to ensure that every possible assistance is given to help those enterprises remain competitive.

I welcome the fact that the shared island initiative that has been announced by the Taoiseach and is included in the programme for Government, will assist in developing cross-Border, all-island projects. There is great scope there. I repeat it is very important that we improve the infrastructure in the Border region. In particular, I am thinking of roads. We need that investment. Alongside the investment in improving the infrastructure, Government needs to give business and enterprises that face particular challenges now, and that are providing worthwhile employment, a clear message that they will be supported through these very challenging times.

Another issue that I mentioned here yesterday in the post-European Council statements was the need to ensure that we have the EU cross border healthcare directive still applicable for patients from the State seeking to access health services in Northern Ireland and-or in Britain.

An area that has not got much attention, to my knowledge, in this debate is the area of criminality and the problems that different trade zones and different taxation regimes, etc., lend to smuggling and criminality. Some people have spoken to me who have a particular knowledge and understanding, and who are concerned about the criminal world. We have had enough criminality associated with the Border over the years. We have to try to ensure that the home-grown criminals, smugglers and thugs do not get a fresh lease of life. Many of those dangerous gangs are linked up with similar dangerous gangs in Europe and we do not want to become a trafficking place for those people to abuse and use people. It is important, given the unique policing demands of the Border region, that An Garda Síochána and the other security forces - the Minister has responsibility for defence - are adequately resourced to deal with any outfall from the new position that we will find ourselves in.

The first meeting of an Oireachtas committee post the Brexit referendum in 2016 was the then Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence. I mentioned at that committee that that referendum result and that vote really knocked the stuffing out of communities in the Border area because we had gone from living in the troubled times to the much better era post-Good Friday Agreement, and of course, we all thought of borders arising again. Thankfully, that will not happen. This is the last opportunity we will have in the Oireachtas to speak before Brexit actually happens. I compliment the Minister and all his colleagues in the Government, and particularly the officials in Departments and other statutory agencies who have been exemplary in getting a very clear message across to their counterparts throughout the European Union about the need to protect the interests of our island.

7:50 pm

Photo of Cian O'CallaghanCian O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay North, Social Democrats)
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I acknowledge the significant amount of work that has been done on Brexit and Brexit preparation and readiness by the Government and by officials. Over the years, the amount of hours that have been put in is something that we in this House can all be proud of. I know that work will continue. I also thank the negotiating team, led by Mr. Michel Barnier, for its work and for its incredible patience and perseverance throughout this process. It is something that we, as European, should all take pride in.

Several Deputies, the Minister and the Minister of State referred to the spirit of cross-party co-operation on Brexit which should be acknowledged. It was in that spirit of cross-party co-operation that there was a request from myself and several other Opposition Deputies for a question and answer session rather than statements on Brexit readiness. It is regrettable that the Government declined the request made by the Opposition. There has already been good cross-party co-operation on this. There was much to be gained by having a question and answer session on Brexit readiness and preparation. We will not have an opportunity to do that again in advance of Brexit.

Why have we not had a national audit on Brexit readiness? The UK has had one. It is a good process which independently looks at the state of readiness and preparations, identifying gaps and weaknesses. One advantage of an independent assessment as to how the preparations are going is that it would be useful, especially for Brexit which is a significant challenge for us. It is true that it is not possible for us to mitigate against every risk or to prepare for every eventuality. It is also true, however, that we must do everything we can to identify each risk, any shortcomings in preparations and plug them at this point. It is remiss of the Government not to have carried out such an audit or independent assessment. It was a mistake and I do not understand why the Government did not take that approach. To me, it would have been a prudent approach for us to take.

I have some concerns about the UK land bridge. We saw today huge queues at Holyhead and at other ports in the UK. This is before Brexit even comes in. There are reports and predictions that there could be delays of up to two days at the UK and French border. We have been told in the past several weeks that the French lack technical capacity in terms of green laning Irish trucks. We have already seen the severe impact the delay in the delivery of goods is having, especially as we see stockpiling taking place. There have been stark warnings from the Irish Road Haulage Association which is involved every day in this in terms of logistics. I am not convinced that there has been enough engagement with the association on its proposals.

As part of Brexit, custom entry forms will increase from 1.5 million to 20 million a year. Thousands of businesses at this stage still have not signed up for a customs registration number, despite it being a relatively straightforward online process. Despite the work done on this, there is potentially a communications gap in this area. What is the Government going to do over these next few weeks to address that communications gap and get it sorted?

An area I am particularly concerned about is the impact on households and the cost of household goods from Brexit. Even in the event of a deal, the ESRI estimated there could be increases in household goods prices of up to €900 per year per household due to costs from delays, as well as increased customs and bureaucracy. Has the Government carried out a recent assessment of the potential cost of Brexit on household goods? If not, when will such an assessment take place and will it be monitored closely in the new year? What measures will the Government take to help support households, particularly low-income households, if this emerges as a significant problem? The Government has quite rightly outlined many of the supports and emphasis it wants to have in supporting businesses. While I support that, low-income households, in particular, also need to be part of the equation. I have not heard the Government being vocal on that in terms of preparations or readiness.

It is worth noting that the UK all along wanted fisheries to be one of the last items negotiated and agreed upon. The EU had wanted fisheries to be agreed upon long before this stage. It is important for us to understand what is being done to make sure that Irish fishing interests remain core at this point in the process. There has been contact between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, outside of the official negotiations process on Brexit. Has fisheries been discussed between the two of them? If so, what was the nature of those discussions?

I have concerns about the operational capacity of our Naval Service. As the Minister is aware, the navy is operating below its operational capacity level. The latest figures I was given are that we have 887 posts out of 1,094 filled. It is critical to know what the Government is doing to address this deficiency in our navy's operational capacity.

8:00 pm

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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Before I dive into Brexit preparedness, I am aware that this is the last chance I have to address the Dáil before the break. I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, personally for your courtesy, the Oireachtas staff and, particularly, the staff of the convention centre who have been so hospitable in what are extremely trying circumstances and to wish everyone the best for the coming season.

One area, not necessarily at the microlevel but at the political level, which deserves sincere attention is the future of the Anglo-Irish relationship. I have no doubt the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is the right person to lead this. Regardless of what we may feel about Brexit or our complicated history, there is no disputing the fact that the United Kingdom will remain our closest geographical neighbour, a neighbour with which we have many deep economic, social, cultural, historical and familial ties. Come 1 January, we have to re-establish that relationship on a new and good footing, accepting the UK has made its democratic, although regrettable, decision to leave the EU. Ireland, of all the EU 27, has the unique opportunity to play a special role in that regard.

In order to do that, we must continue and double down on our efforts in embracing the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. There is a huge political impetus on all Members to work towards the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. At Government level, we need to increase engagement, probably for the short term, in terms of the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council and, crucially, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. These are key institutions where we can reset the relationship and move forward in a positive manner, one that would be of great benefit, not just this State, but our friends across the water.

Regardless of some comments, they will always be our friends, if not our family. That is something we need to learn. The five years of the Brexit process have been trying and have brought out some of the worst, not just in British politicians but particularly Irish politicians. Our frustration with Brexit should never morph into some sort of anti-British sentiment. Such a step would be hugely regrettable. I have no doubt the majority, if not every, Deputy and Senator will be committed to a new prosperous and warm relationship.

It was in that context that I was cheered to see the meeting today between the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and Naomi Long, the North's Minister of Justice, as they discussed the new security relationships that will be needed on a North-South basis in the post-Brexit era. The continuing co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland is absolutely vital. The energy taken by both commissioners about the new relationship from 1 January will be important. It drills down to the importance of that security relationship, North-South, east-west and between the EU and the UK.

We need to have that preparation and not take for granted those tools on which we rely in the existing structures of the European Union to work with our British friends when it comes to not just tackling the dissident threat, which still remains severe in the north of this island, but also organised crime and wider terrorism across the European Union. We cannot pretend that criminals recognise borders and simply stop their drug peddling or whatever when they reach Fermanagh. They do not recognise borders. That is the same when they transfer money or use crypto currencies. The security mechanisms and the preparedness needed by the agencies of this State, particularly An Garda Síochána, are important.

Many Deputies have touched on the specifics of preparedness. I joined the Brexit stakeholders forum, chaired by the Minister, just over two and a half years ago. The sheer array of stakeholders brought to those regular meetings in Iveagh House, and we were able to meet in person at the time, really showed and underlined how Brexit jeopardises and underpins every aspect of Irish life, not just economic life but social, cultural and environmental life as well. There is a huge merit to maintaining the stakeholders' forum after the transition period to make sure we implement the tools of a Brexit agreement that comes out in the next couple of days, and I will come to that in a second. It is a huge credit not just to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, but also their predecessors, Deputies Flanagan and McEntee, and, most importantly, their officials and how they have worked across Departments and sectors through this period to ensure the State is as best prepared as possible for the cliff edge, or possibly less of a cliff edge, that will come on 1 January.

There is no such thing as a good Brexit for everyone, and I have said this a million times, be it Ireland, the UK or the EU. Drastic change is coming regardless of whether a deal is secured in the coming days. We look quite warmly at the supports that have already been rolled out by the Government and the previous Government, with the support of all sides of the House. We look at the supports and the important role they have played and we see how they were actioned when the Covid pandemic kicked into gear. We saw it in supply change management and medicines provision. We ensured that unlike other jurisdictions, the shelves did not go empty in March when the restrictions came through to fight the first wave of the Covid pandemic.

We also look at the budgetary measures and the fact the previous two budgets passed by the House were designed on a no-deal Brexit footing. We are so grateful for the original rainy day fund that has been released by the Ministers, Deputies Donohoe and Michael McGrath, in recent months. Equally, we look at the €3.4 billion Brexit and Covid contingency in the budget and the important role it will play, and the importance at European level of the Brexit adjustment fund of €5 billion.

Going into the new year, deal or no deal, the new great challenge for the Minister and the Minister of State will be to work with European colleagues to identify sectoral deficiencies. They will come regardless of what has been done because Brexit will simply impact. It was Deputy Cian O'Callaghan who went through the huge growth in customs declarations that will come. They will impact trade. Logistics difficulties are simply going to be posed and they are beyond our control. The land bridge was so eloquently detailed by Deputy Howlin, not just in this forum but yesterday morning at the European affairs committee. These are huge challenges that will affect our trade.

If we look at the slightly wider Brexit preparedness and how it should shape certain aspects of Government policy, not just in the coming weeks and months but in the coming years, it is about the importance of market diversification, much of which was begun when the Minister was at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which was also Deputy Brendan Smith's former stomping ground. We look at the markets for Irish food producers and the growth of Irish exports to China in the beef industry, the growth of Irish drinks exports to Canada and the growth of Irish pork exports to South Korea. All of these are key areas that are highly exposed by the difficulties Brexit will pose one way or the other.

We have to realise the full potential not just of these existing trade deals but also potential new European trade deals, such as the recent one concluded with Vietnam and potential future deals with Malaysia, Indonesia and, hopefully, Australia and New Zealand. Also crucial is the European Single Market. If one looks at the breakdown by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, of trade figures for the calendar year of 2020 and if one bears in mind that when we joined the EEC in 1973, 55% of our exports went to Great Britain, one sees that more than 40% of our exports go to the rest of the continental Single Market. This shows how important it is to this country and how much potential is still there. While we may be very proud of our exports to individual member states, such as Belgium, Germany or France, there is still huge potential in central, eastern and southern Europe that needs to be realised. It requires in the Department of Foreign Affairs the continuing emphasis on preparing our diplomatic missions.

It is wonderful we have maintained all our embassies throughout the Union, as well as opening additional offices in Frankfurt and Lyon but we need to see additional economic chanceries from the Department opened in other second cities, such as Milan in Italy and Barcelona in Spain. We have seen great progress in the reopening of our consulate in Cardiff and I look forward to the opening of the consulate in the so-called northern powerhouse in due course. It is a huge personal achievement that I know is very close to the Minister on so many levels.

Looking at all of this preparedness I wonder, as we come into these final few days and hours of the Brexit negotiations, how important a deal is, not just to this country but to the United Kingdom and the wider European Union. It is not too far-fetched to say that as one goes further east beyond London, the importance dips down a bit. That is sheer economic exposure. A deal absolutely can be secured in the coming days and I commend Michel Barnier and the entire task force, as well as Lord Frost. That might sound a little bit odd for me to say but the effort Lord Frost and Michel Barnier have made in recent weeks and months will stand the course of time, if we can see a deal secured in the coming days that can be ratified not just by the House of Commons but by the European Parliament.

When we are talking about trade deals and the importance of this trade deal and the importance of a level playing field in governance, we look at other trade deals. I have mentioned the potential markets that our beef farmers or our dairy farmers or sheep farmers will need to look at in the coming years. We need to realise that trade deals are absolutely at the centre of the post-Brexit and post-Covid recovery for this country. The House has to take responsibility for this and to stop picking and choosing and inventing reasons not to get behind European negotiated trade deals. They have been good for Ireland before and they will continue to be good and it is about time we put Ireland front and centre as the EU's premier exporting and trading nation.

8:10 pm

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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The issue of Brexit readiness is something we are very conscious of throughout the entire country, and particularly so in the Border region. With a lot of product that moves over and back across the Border in the part the world I come from, particularly for small businesses and small food businesses, it is a serious issue and they have great apprehension as to where we will be even if there is a trade deal in place. I am of the view that at some point, if not at the end of this year then at some point in the near future, there will be a deal because it would be absurd for Britain, on the edge of Europe where there is ten times its population, to not have a trade deal with its neighbours but instead to try to trade with places that are in far-flung corners of the earth. It just does not make common sense. Ultimately, it will come to this and common sense will come to bear.

In the meantime, we have a huge level of apprehension, worry and concern, particularly among hauliers and people moving goods over and back and using the land bridge, about the difficulties they have at present. Small haulage companies run on very tight margins. If they have delays, it puts their entire business in jeopardy. We need to be particularly looking at what can be done from a Government perspective to assist in all of this.

I commend the Department and the Minister on all of the work that has gone on over the past number of years, and in particular in recent months, to try to deal with this crisis that continues to unfold in front of us. I do not think that a few years ago, anyone would have expected we would be here, coming up to Christmas, with no arrangement, never mind a pretty serious one, in place. It is a reflection of something very strange in the British Government and the higher echelons of the British establishment that it has brought us and the entire Continent of Europe to this situation at this point.

We are where we are and we need to deal with it and work through it. Readiness on this island for the economies that are particularly dependent on exports to Britain and through Britain is one of the primary factors we have to deal with. There are other factors we also need to deal with and I am sure the Minister is aware of the issues with regard to human rights, Britain's attempt to evade and avoid many of its responsibilities in this regard and what needs to be done to ensure we hold it to account in this respect.

I am sure that Michel Barnier and others will be standing firm on those issues in the negotiations. They certainly need to do so. That is reflected in the Good Friday Agreement and the work that has been done to bring peace to this island, and maintain it, and to bring prosperity and hope for a better future for everyone on these islands. We must continue to put all our efforts into that.

Finding alternative markets for our produce may be a little further down the road from the point of view that we are now days away from finding ourselves in a situation where Britain could be leaving the European Union without a trade deal. Apart from that, a huge amount of Irish food produce, particularly beef and dairy products, is exported to Britain. What will happen if we do not have a deal in place and we find that those products will face a massive tariff, which will have an impact on our small farmers and food industries across the country. That is a crisis we need to find a solution to in the short to medium term. I believe that solution can only come from the fund the European Union is putting in place to work with countries that will be badly impacted by Brexit. More than any other country, Ireland is in the eye of the storm in that respect. I expect that the Minister and his Department will make every possible effort to ensure we get the maximum resources from that fund to protect our farming, food producing and haulage sectors, and all the other sectors that will be very badly affected.

We will also need to see if we can get the infrastructure in place, particularly the ports, to ensure we can continue to export our goods outside of the land bridge and on to Europe in as fast a means as possible. As others have said, until now the market has led that. At some point, the Government will need to step in and insist on ensuring that we put the infrastructure in place, particularly at our ports, and to provide the ferry capacity to take the roll on-roll off traffic that will be needed because there is great concern in the road haulage industry around all of that.

Every effort is being made to deal with this issue and the unity in this House, and of our people, in respect of it is something we can be proud of as a country. It is seen across the continent of Europe that we are working at our absolute best to try to provide for our people and ensure that we can minimise the impact of Brexit. The situation we are in is not of our making but at the same time we are rising to it. I hope that will continue as we move forward.

I commend the Minister, his Department, the people in all aspects of the Government, all the parties and all the people in the Oireachtas who have worked as one to try to ensure that Brexit will not impact our people too badly as we move forward.

8:20 pm

Photo of Joe FlahertyJoe Flaherty (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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Brexit is foremost in our minds this evening. I commend the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, when she was in her previous role, our Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, the Minister for agriculture, Deputy McConalogue, and my constituency colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, for the Herculean work that has been done. Many hours have been put into it and I want to commend all of them.

The reality for this House is that, notwithstanding such a major international challenge, all politics is local. I wish to acknowledge that tomorrow will see the ESB end production at its power plant in Lanesborough, which is my home town and at one time was the cradle of electricity production in this country. There are obvious parallels with project Brexit and the race to decarbonisation and its impacts on local communities. A suite of supports will be put in place for workers, businesses and community groups affected by Brexit. We can contrast that with the decarbonisation challenge. It is true that we have the just transition fund and, to be fair, it is effectively targeting the affected communities. In contrast with Brexit, which will be an 18-month challenge, the problems posed by carbonisation run much deeper. We need to put in place supports that will safeguard and fortify these communities, which evolved over six decades in unison with the scaling up of the Bord na Móna and ESB operations.

This Government, thanks to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and all the others I have mentioned, has a great success story to tell in respect of how we have responded to the Brexit challenge. I commend my colleague, Deputy Martin Kenny, for acknowledging that. This week we saw that the detail is being finalised on a €400 million plus package of supports for our farmers, which is also very welcome, but there is no doubt that, unfortunately, Brexit will result in legacy issues. That will be the case also with decarbonisation.

We are already seeing an unintentional effect of that in the County Longford area where, under the shadow of the ESB power station, which as I said will finish production tomorrow, we have our local primary school and just across the water as the crow flies, on the Roscommon side of the River Shannon, we have Clontuskert National School. Both of those schools were built in direct response to the arrival of Bord na Móna and ESB families coming to that Shannonside location. Today, Claire Murphy is the principal of Lanesborough Primary School. Her late father worked in Bord na Móna. Padraig Connerton is the principal of Clontuskert National School. His late father also worked with Bord na Móna. Ironically, both of those school principals grew up a couple of doors away from each other on The Green, which was a Bord na Móna housing estate. When we reflect on the legacy of Bord na Móna and the ESB it will not be the effect they had on the environment but rather the impact they had on building and fostering communities and inspiring people to go on to be school principals.

As we have in respect of Brexit, we have stepped up to the plate and are providing unprecedented support for our businesses and farmers. The two aforementioned schools will now need our support because the reality is that the ramifications - emotional and financial - of the loss of the ESB and Bord na Móna, which have been major employers, will be significant in this local community. Whatever way we look at it, the community and in particular these schools are facing a very uncertain time. Ironically, the two schools I have mentioned feed into the local community college in Lanesborough, which is categorised as a DEIS school but, unfortunately, neither of these two primary schools have DEIS status. The Department says there is not the capacity to add any additional schools to the DEIS programme. Unfortunately, there is not even a mechanism for the schools to apply to the DEIS programme. I hope that is an issue that can be addressed in the new year.

I am conscious that I have deviated from the topic but, unfortunately, the ghosts of the many people who came from the four corners of Ireland over the past 60 years would never forgive me if I did not take this opportunity to highlight a major concern for these two schools and also the community that fed and clothed my family for many years.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy. As it is the last week before Christmas I can commend him on his ingenuity. Deputy Thomas Gould has the next slot. I see that he does not have to share with anyone.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I want to raise an issue that has come to the fore and been highlighted as a result of Brexit, that is, connectivity and people being able to connect in the face of Brexit and the consequences that has for companies. We have a very intelligent, educated workforce who are eager to work and to learn. We are lucky in that respect. Many companies are now looking for employees to work from home but what we have seen as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, and of Brexit, is that there is no broadband in the communities. As a Corkman like myself, the Minister knows areas like Blarney, Whitechurch, Togher, Killeens and Kerry Pike. These are areas that have major problems with connectivity and broadband. Up the road from me is Apple, one of the biggest employers in Cork, if not the State, and just up the road in Kerry Pike, half the village does not have broadband. There are huge issues in respect of the roll-out of the national broadband plan and the inefficiencies in the plan. An estate in Blarney called Ard Dara was supposed to have commercial Internet broadband but it does not have it. I made inquiries. I contacted the provider and I was told that the cables were laid but were not connected. As a result of my correspondence and residents working with me and with the companies, I hope that issue will be resolved but it goes to the heart of the problem in terms of the broadband plan not working.

A constituent of mine lives in Whitechurch. There is broadband at the top and bottom of his road, but at its centre, he has no broadband. Broadband is vital for people living in places such as Blarney, Tower and other areas, especially when we consider the effects of Brexit. More and more work will be done online, including customs and administration for import and exports to Britain. That is why the whole broadband plan is essential.

As we face into a Christmas like no other, many people have listened to the Government and tried to stay out of shops, and to order online from local companies and Irish brands. As the Minister and most Deputies know, there are significant issues trying to get parcels delivered by An Post. This is a serious issue because it will be a disaster for many people who are waiting for these deliveries, both presents and other packages, if they do not arrive on time for Christmas. We know it is not the fault of the An Post workers who do Trojan work to try to get parcels and letters to people on time. I thank the workers involved in delivery and sorting who are trying to get the mail distributed. Years of underfunding by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments have left An Post in this position. It shows a lack of planning with regard to Brexit that we did not invest in An Post. How are we to survive in the face of Covid and Brexit? We need to support local businesses and to be able to get our post and packages out. If we do not have a functioning postal service, it is a significant issue.

I wish the Minister, his staff, civil servants, our own staff and everyone in Leinster House and the convention centre a happy Christmas. I wish everyone a safe Christmas. We will have significant challenges in 2021 that we need to rise to. I wish a happy Christmas to everyone because we have never needed Christmas as much as we do this year.

8:30 pm

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I add my voice to what Deputy Gould has said. I wish all Members and Oireachtas staff a happy Christmas. I thank the Minister, Deputy Coveney, the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and the officials in the Department for the work they have done. There have been significant difficulties and they have always made themselves available to this House.

Regarding what the Minister said about how we cannot mitigate every problem related to Brexit and that there will be significant difficulties rather than just hiccups, I welcome that we have preparations in place. We accept that when problems occur, from a governmental point of view, the entire resources of the State, in conjunction with the European Union, will focus on dealing with those problems. We are in the middle of what we hope is a narrow path that will bring us to a deal. My fear is that this may be a skinny deal which will lead to further negotiation after negotiation and leave a degree of uncertainty. It was said to me that if Boris Johnson and the British Government are considering doing a deal, the only way they will be able to sell the deal at home politically is to leave it to the last minute. If the British Government is considering not doing a deal, it has to go right to the wire too. We have had deadline after deadline and we are back in this place. Logic would dictate that Britain, with 45% of its exports going to the European Union, needs a deal, and that it would be catastrophic for it to have a no-deal Brexit. I agree with Deputy Kenny that if a deal does not happen within the timeframe we would like, which is straightaway, there will have to be a deal in the near future, out of necessity.

In the last while, we have had certain difficulties thrown at us. We accept that significant work has been done on Brexit by many stakeholders to ensure we can bridge the gaps. We have worries about fisheries and farmers. We welcome the financial supports that are being talked about. There are still worries about the prospect that the French, and President Macron, might take a grab at the Brexit adjustment fund of €5 billion. We accept that this is a fund for the whole of Europe, but nowhere in the European Union will be impacted more by Brexit than Ireland. We had no hand, act or part in Brexit.

We have spoken about the difficulty with the land bridge. We welcome the new direct ferries to the Continent. I accept that there are difficulties in that some of these services take a long time and we have just-in-time deliveries. I listened to Liam Lacey of the Irish Maritime Development Office speak to the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. He was a bit more relaxed than I would have liked and basically stated that the market would sort out any problems. Appearing before the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks, Eugene Drennan of the Irish Road Haulage Association explicitly stated that there are still significant problems anticipated not only in Britain, but also here, for hauliers at the ports. There are difficulties with regard to ferries arriving at the same time to deliver goods for businesses. This State still has a requirement to call together all those stakeholders, including ferry companies, port companies, hauliers and those who represent the businesses that require goods to be moved. We also have to look at using air transport more for cargo. We need to do this as quickly as possible.

We welcome that Britain has put to one side the Internal Market Bill, which undermines the Irish protocol, but we are still apprehensive. It is fair to say that Brexit will not be good for us. As this is my final time speaking before the recess, I will reiterate, in case anyone has not noticed me saying it previously, that a united Ireland is a solution that would mitigate some of the problems.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank all the speakers for taking the time to stay late this evening to be part of this debate. It is appreciated. I would like to think that I have always been non-party political when it comes to Brexit, in sharing information, responding to questions, inviting people to stakeholder groups and organising briefings whenever I have been asked for them. There has been great strength in the Irish position in recent years for two reasons. One is that we have had absolute unity in the Irish parliamentary system with regard to what we have been looking for and what we have been trying to protect. We have had extraordinary solidarity from EU partners, from people such as President Macron, who is not trying to grab anything from anybody in the context of Brexit but, like many other EU leaders, has been focused on EU solidarity to try to get an outcome that protects the future relationship between the EU and the UK.

More important, it protects what we have created over decades in the context of a shared common market, a customs union, a political union and an economic union that have raised standards of living and provided opportunities for so many people in Ireland and across a population of more than 450 million people.

I do not propose to read my prepared speech because I want to answer Deputies' questions. The speech refers to Ireland having joined the then EEC with the United Kingdom, which was part of a transformation of this country over time that helped to create the kind of opportunities that are available for Irish people today. This is, in part, due to our membership of the European Union and the extraordinary benefits that has brought, including in the context of a peace process on this island. The European Union has been supportive of that process through very difficult years and continues to be supportive through the challenges of the Brexit process that has been under way for the past four and a half years through difficult negotiation and so on.

As this is the last time I will have the opportunity to do so, I put on record the thanks of the Irish Government and the Irish people to the EU negotiators led by Michel Barnier and Maroš Šefčovič, who was the co-chair along with Michael Gove of the joint committee that has found a way to get agreement on the full implementation of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. From an Irish perspective, this is important in the context of the guarantees that it provides around settling the question and the anxiety referred to earlier by Members, in particular those from Border communities, around the prospect of border infrastructure or checking systems on the Border between North and South. We can now be sure that will not happen in the future. There is a cost to that in the context of the designing of the protocol, which requires some checks on goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. This has created a great deal of concern and anxiety, particularly among unionist communities and political parties. There is no simple way of solving these issues. People have criticised me, the Irish Government and the Irish political system in terms of our search for a solution that became the protocol to the Irish question around the border issue. Many people have criticised the solution but have not offered alternatives that can do the same job. That is the reality. The protocol is not perfect. It does create some barriers, although we have tried to limit them to the greatest extent possible and focus on goods coming into four ports and two airports as opposed to having a lengthy piece of border infrastructure. There has been a pragmatism in terms of the agreed implementation of the protocol to try to take account of genuine concerns around supply chains and so on.

The truth is that when a country chooses to leave the European Union, the Single Market and the customs union, as the United Kingdom has done, there are significant consequences to that decision that cannot be easily solved. That is why the protocol is complex. It is as it is and cannot provide entirely for seamless trade North-South and east-west. We have done as much as we possibly can to address those concerns while protecting the all-island economy and ensuring that the tension and questions around border infrastructure into the future are comprehensively addressed.

I will respond to some of the questions that colleagues have asked. On the concerns that have been raised in relation to hauliers, direct ferry routes from Ireland to mainland Europe or to the rest of the EU Single Market, a dramatic increase in capacity has developed over the last 18 months. In regard to the ferry services, DFDS has announced a daily service out of Rosslare, Brittany Ferries is adding significantly more capacity, as is Stena Line, and Irish Ferries is taking delivery of a new ship and will significantly increase its capacity. We have had a conversation with all of those ferry companies and many more about adding extra capacity beyond that should there be demand for it. I reassure the House and those who suggest that we are not sitting around the table or that we are leaving things to the last minute that there is ongoing consultation with all stakeholders, from the road hauliers to the road hauliers associations. I have engaged with them, and the Minister for Transport engages with them on a regular basis. We have also engaged with shipping companies and exporters and importers. We have had over 20 stakeholder meetings at which many of these interests were present, as were many politicians. We have been discussing these issues for at least three years. Let nobody send a message out this evening that somehow we are leaving anything to the last minute, that we have not thought about something or that we are relying on the market to solve the problem.

The State is investing over €30 million in Dublin Port. We are taking on an extra 1,500 public servants as customs officials, in the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Health and in the Revenue Commissioners and so on as part of the inspections systems that have to be put in place. There is nobody relying on the market to solve these problems. We have put in place, and spent significant amounts of public money to put in place, new infrastructure to try to ensure that we have everything that we possibly can control in place in time for 1 January. Does that mean the transition will be perfect and seamless? It does not. Hauliers will encounter new barriers to trade in terms of paperwork and bureaucracy, inspections, delays, the need to go through parking systems and green, orange and red lanes when they disembark from ferries, depending on what load they are carrying. That is disruption, but that is Brexit. In the case of a business in respect of which 85% of its goods come into this island via the UK land bridge, if we are looking to change the supply chain and to have increased emphasis on direct ferry routes while still relying to some degree on the land bridge, that will involve disruption. I have been talking about that for two years. We continue to engage in communication campaigns and leaflet distribution. The Revenue Commissioners wrote to 90,000 companies outlining what they needed to do and it followed that up with 14,000 telephone calls to make sure it was engaging directly with people and they understand what they need to do.

On the readiness issue, there is no such thing as the perfect preparation for something as disruptive as an economy of the size and scale of the United Kingdom leaving the Single Market and customs union. The UK is integrated with the Irish economy. We are interwoven in so many ways in terms of supply chains and business across the Irish Sea. Every year, €80 billion in trade crosses the Irish Sea. Brexit, deal or no deal, is going to involve significant disruption to that trade. As legislators and policymakers, we have sought to put as much preparation as possible in place through legislation, expenditure, policy change, consultation with stakeholders and planning to limit that disruption to the greatest extent possible. That is, I think, what we have done but we are not done yet. The preparation will continue through the end of this year and into next year and we will continue to try to manage this transition as best we can to limit the disruption and protect the relationships through that process of change.